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Omnibus bill includes funding for broadband, dozens of policy provisions

A flurry of activity in the hearing room moments before the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee convened April 18 for a walk-through of the omnibus job growth and energy affordability finance bill. Photo by Andrew VonBank
A flurry of activity in the hearing room moments before the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee convened April 18 for a walk-through of the omnibus job growth and energy affordability finance bill. Photo by Andrew VonBank

If you ask Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul), the omnibus job growth and energy affordability finance bill has “some good stuff in it,” but it’s “unlikely to get passed.”

HF4289, as amended, sponsored by Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), would appropriate $14.6 million from the General Fund and $27.7 million from the Renewable Development Account to fund more than 30 projects and grants, but it also includes some policy provisions that have raised concerns from the DFL and Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration.

The House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Committee heard an overview and some public testimony of the 95-page omnibus bill Wednesday. The committee plans to hear more testimony Thursday and will discuss potential amendments to the bill – and vote on it – Friday.

“You brought a lot of bills in here that have not been heard – you put in a number of poison pills … it would be nice to actually put a bill together, send it to the governor without having to have him veto,” Mahoney said. “He doesn’t need a jobs bill … I certainly hope you take that into consideration as we move forward.”


$15 million for broadband

The committee was given a spreadsheet that shows all the funding appropriations in the bill, with money going to the Department of Employment and Economic Development, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Labor and Industry and the Public Facilities Authority.

DEED would receive the most money, with $15 million from the General Fund in Fiscal Year 2019 going to the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program.

“I don’t know if people realize … that this is not a budget year and yet, with a little bit of surplus money that we had, this committee was given $15 million of new money and the entirety of that money is allocated to Border-to-Border Broadband,” said Rep. Sandy Layman (R-Cohasset), who sponsors the initial broadband funding bill.

The appropriation for broadband is only half the amount Dayton asked for in his supplemental budget, with DEED Commissioner Shawntera Hardy saying she’s “concerned” the appropriation won’t be enough to keep pace with the need for broadband expansion.

“I encourage you, if funding is found, to increase the investments to meet the governor’s level to ensure Minnesota families have access and Minnesota businesses are able to compete,” Hardy said.

Commissioners from other departments impacted in the bill also testified about their concerns, with most focusing on items that didn’t match the governor’s budget recommendations. Commerce Commissioner Jessica Looman also noted the bill includes funding for grants they haven’t had the chance to analyze to see if they’d be able to provide appropriate oversight.


$20 million to Prairie Island Indian Community

The bill would establish the Prairie Island Net Zero Project, with the goal of the Prairie Island Indian Community developing an energy system that results in net zero emissions.

“We will offset our total consumed energy with an equal amount of renewable energy generated with projects such as solar and programs that reduce and conserve energy in our homes, our businesses and our buildings,” said Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community Tribe. She noted that her reservation sits 600 yards from Xcel Energy’s Prairie Island nuclear plant.

The bill would appropriate $20 million to DEED from the Renewable Development Account in Fiscal Year 2019, and $5 million each year for the next four years to “stimulate research, development and implementation of renewable energy projects.”

This was one of the policy provisions that hadn’t been heard before, but members from both sides of the aisle expressed their excitement about the project.

The bill would also appropriate $2 million from the Renewable Energy Account in Fiscal Year 2019 to provide a grant to Xcel Energy so it can study and apply for a better place to store spent nuclear fuel. Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls) questioned why funds dedicated for renewable energy would be used in this way, but Rick Evans, director of government affairs at Xcel, said the grant would help improve the situation and get the fuel out of the state faster. 


Policy provisions

The majority of the bill contained dozens of policy provisions – some recommended by the governor, some that are controversial, and some the committee hadn’t heard before.

Mahoney said he could count five to six bills that hadn’t been heard in committee before Wednesday, and hopes they get “a whole lot better vetting” so members can understand what they’re about before they vote.

Among the provisions that hadn’t been heard is one that would require the Public Utilities Commission to relocate its offices to Virginia, Minn.

Another would set a $3,000 wireless facility application fee limit. Currently, counties, cities and towns can charge whatever they want for the application fee, which Dan Leary, manager of government affairs at T-Mobile, said has made it hard to bring wireless service to some areas of the state.

However, Laura Ziegler, intergovernmental relations liaison at the League of Minnesota Cities, opposes the bill because of the amount it specifies and because it takes away local control.

Garofalo said the bill has to be heard in another committee so this provision may be removed from the final version.

Hardy and other department commissioners reminded the committee that Dayton requested policy bills not be paired with finance bills so they can be discussed on their own merits, adding she hopes the committee adheres to that.


What else is in the bill?

The following are some of the bills that have been incorporated in part or in whole into the omnibus job growth and energy affordability finance bill:

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